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Fix Boston’s McKinley Schools: … Reimagine their vision

On October 23, 1899, a group of prominent Black citizens from Boston wrote a strong letter of protest to President William McKinley imploring him to speak out against the escalating incidents of lynching and ongoing acts of vicious racial violence against Black people in the South.
Here’s an excerpt: “Are you silent because without any fault of our own we were enslaved and held for more than two centuries in cruel bondage by your forefathers? Is it because we bear the marks of those sad generation of Anglo-Saxon brutality and wickedness, that you do not speak?”
President McKinley did nothing. In fact, he placated the white supremacists and affirmed their citizenry.

In a stinging open letter, Black citizens of Boston exposed the hypocrisy of President McKinley’s claims that America stood for freedom and democracy in foreign countries while he refused to speak, let alone take action, against the murders and other violent abuses whites in the South were using to suppress Black people.

Boston’s McKinley Schools are named after this 25th U.S. president. That should change.

The McKinley Schools (a group of four schools within BPS) should be renamed in honor of Melvin H. King, a BPS graduate and legend known as “The Son of the South End.”

An inspiring Boston leader
Mel King is the former director of Boston’s Urban League, created innovative community-based programs, and founded the South End Technology Center. King’s life’s mission led him to become a stalwart community leader, organizer, author, educator, and the first Black Boston mayoral candidate.

He dedicated his life to urban renewal and sparked protest against gentrification in the South End.

Mel King successfully organized a massive sit-in, known as Tent City, which led to affordable housing for low-income Black residents who were threatened with relocation due to gentrification of their neighborhoods. Mel tirelessly fought for his community and community-based schooling, including the McKinley School at 90 Warren Street, where he mentored youth. Students constructed a huge school mural in honor of Mel King.

Decades later, the McKinley Schools have lost their way in educating Black students. It is now time to reimagine their name, vision, and purpose in honor of the living legend, Mel King, now in his 90s.

Today, when a white man says, “Give me liberty or give me death,” he is considered a hero. When a Black man says, “Black Lives Matter,” he is sucked into the vortex of racial hatred and labeled a criminal.

Black boys more likely to get a “substantially separate” placement

For Black boys, the process of criminalization begins early with harsh disciplinary practices, often leading to segregation in substantially separate special education settings. I argue that the purpose of public education in America has been to maintain the balance of power in society and ensure it does not shift.

The McKinley Schools were founded in 1978 for a population of students between the ages of five and twenty-two who have reportedly failed in school due to primary emotional and behavioral problems as well as concomitant academic challenges. These students are assigned to McKinley through BPS’s special education process.

Since the McKinley design did not address the root cause of structural racism as a reason for referral to special education, the IEP process disproportionately targeted Black males, resulting in significant over-representation of Black boys. Once they go in, they don’t get out, which makes a McKinley placement a sentence, not a service for Black students. This often leads to higher dropout rates, unemployment, underemployment, or imprisonment.

According to historian Carter G. Woodson, “…to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”

Public schools were designed for white students; the curricular content and teaching methodologies were created to center whiteness. White values are rooted in the curriculum, pedagogy, policies, and practices, and are promoted in school culture, disciplinary procedures, celebrations, and rituals. When schools were integrated, no efforts were made to alter or diminish the impact of a white, colonized curriculum.

Disproportionately harsh disciplinary procedures against Black males in schools are connected to the disproportionate numbers of Black males stopped, detained, brutalized, imprisoned, and killed by the police. The racialized targeting of Black males is not new, and it begins early in schooling where Black students are more harshly disciplined, suspended, restrained, expelled, over-policed, arrested, and more frequently sent to DYS detention facilities.

“Adultification” and its roots

According to Professor Michael Dumas of the University of California, the historical roots of enslavement result in the adultification of Black boys and girls. Adultification occurs when a child is perceived to be many years older than his/her chronological age, often erasing the distinction between child and adult.

During chattel slavery, Black children as young as three years old were expected to perform work in much the same way as their enslaved parents because Black children were not perceived as innocent. They were denied a childhood and were punished for exhibiting typical childhood behavior.

In January 2021, a 9-year-old Black girl from New Rochelle, N.Y. was dragged through the snow by several white officers, then handcuffed and pepper-sprayed in the face while she cried out for her father. One police officer said, “Stop acting like a child.” The 9-year-old girl tearfully responded, “I am a child,” to which the officer replied, “You did it to yourself, hon.”

On the other hand, Kyle Rittenhouse, brandishing an AR-15 type rifle, shot and killed two people, then calmly walked past police, who did not intervene, and went home. News stories portrayed him as a 17-year-old boy who was afraid and defending himself, even though he killed unarmed men.

But Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child, was shot dead in two seconds as he played with a toy on the playground. After the killing, the police officer reported on his walkie-talkie, “Shots fired. Male down. Black male, maybe 20.”

The McKinley Schools are disproportionately populated with Black students, specifically boys because they are erroneously viewed as more aggressive, less innocent, dangerous, in less need of nurturing, much older than their chronological age, and emotionally and behaviorally impaired.

Justin: Emotional impairment or dyslexia?

Here’s an example that illustrates the challenge: Justin, eight years old, is a shy student, an excellent soccer player, well behaved, and good at math.

When his third-grade teacher asked him to read aloud in class, Justin threw his book to the floor, kicked it and shouted, “I’d rather die than read.”

As he sprinted out of the classroom, he bumped into his teacher, who tried to block his exit. The teacher summoned the principal, who discovered Justin hiding in the bathroom stall. After coaxing him out of the stall, the principal guided Justin by the arm to the office. Justin instinctively wrestled to get free and sprinted toward the school’s exit, but was caught and restrained by staff.

Justin’s parents, who never received a call on disciplinary matters, were told Justin could not return to school until he received medical clearance from a doctor. After returning to school, Justin was repeatedly disciplined and spent much of his time in the principal’s office.

Diagnosis rejected, child saved
Justin’s parents reported that the discipline complaints were unfounded. Justin started experiencing sleep difficulty and began resisting going to school. The school recommended a referral to special education. Although assessments revealed Justin demonstrated difficulties with phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, word recognition, and reading fluency, the IEP Team determined that Justin had an emotional impairment and recommended a substantially separate special education program for students with primary emotional impairments. In this case, the parents rejected the Team recommendation and enlisted advocacy to get the right services for Justin.

Justin’s story is common for Black boys who require academic support yet don’t get the necessary and early intervening literacy and academic supports. Then they are blamed for not performing, disciplined, and placed in substantially segregated school settings where literacy and academic supports are still not provided.

The cost of a McKinley seat is approximately $77,000 per student annually, which does not include an extended school year that students are entitled to attend during the summer. The 2020 enrollment is 319 students.

The Black student population significantly exceeds its percentage in the district. According to 2019/2020 DESE data, Black student enrollment in the district was 29.3%; McKinley is comprised of 41.9% Black students. Latinx students are slightly overrepresented; there are 42.4% Latinx students in the district and 43.1% in McKinley schools.

What are the results of a $77,000 seat at a McKinley School?

A 7:1 student to staff ratio. According to DESE, the four-year graduation rate for Black students is 18.5%; the rate of four-year graduation for Latinx students is 20%. Despite the requirement of transition planning, 74.3% of the McKinley students responded that their aspirations for post–high school were “unknown.” No McKinley graduates enrolled in a four-year college. McKinley students are more likely to be suspended in school and incarcerated in DYS facilities.

Left out of BuildBPS

The McKinley Preparatory High School has been left out of high school redesign; it has no library, no gym, no cafeteria, and no labs. The classrooms are small, therapy spaces are inadequate and dreary, and bathrooms are subpar. The other sites also have inadequate facilities and crumbling infrastructures. BuildBPS has a 10-year plan that addresses the structural needs of school buildings, but does not address the needs of the McKinley Schools, and the BPS’s capital improvement plan has not addressed structural flaws in its budget, which is supposed to use the equity planning tool to prioritize the neediest schools. Additionally, McKinley students are shut out from access to vocational programming.

A 2020 DESE reports a 61.2% rate of chronic absenteeism of McKinley’s Black students, and an overall 60.4% chronic absenteeism rate of all McKinley students.

The current school leader, who also oversaw the McKinley Schools as assistant superintendent for special education for the past eight years and is responsible for the current disastrous 2020 state audit results, discontinued a crucial satellite program that was a gateway making it possible to transition McKinley students back to their home schools.

Without access to less restrictive placements, students remain locked out of general education settings because schools are resistant to re-enrolling McKinley students. This fuels McKinley’s chronic absenteeism, dropout rates, and the special education to prison pipeline. Given the overall failure rate of all students, primarily Black students as well as Latinx and English learners, there is no justification to continue the current McKinley model; maintaining its name adds further insult to the fight for equity and liberation of Black students.

“Systemic failure”

A state audit released in January 2020 concludes Boston’s special education department is in “systemic failure.” BPS places 36% of its Black students with disabilities in substantially separate settings, compared to placing 17% of White students with disabilities. Why does this happen? Societal racism does not disappear in school settings. School staff require professional learning to effectively create school cultures that nurture the learning of Black boys.

McKinley Schools require immediate systemic reform to dismantle unjust policies and practices and provide McKinley students a quality education in the current site.

BPS made quiet plans to demolish the 90 Warren Street McKinley site, build a new $83 million dollar state-of-the-art building for the high-performing Quincy Upper School, and displace the current student population. McKinley staff staged a protest, the project was abandoned, and there has been no new plan to repair or reconstruct the building. BPS must resist gentrifying the McKinley buildings for other students and keep the sites for its current students.

How to fix it

The McKinley Schools’ vision and purpose must be reimagined and reconstructed with a renaming ceremony and fresh leadership dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion. To reframe the conversation and provide aspirational and excellent educational leadership, the Equity, Strategy and Opportunity Gaps (ESOG) team should lead the charge. BPS has not funded the ESOG team and must do so to ensure this unit has adequate resources to conduct transformative work with school staff, revise practices in all BPS sites, and hold schools accountable for educating Black and Brown students—wholly, equitably, and successfully free of bias and racism. To address the longstanding problem of sentencing Black students to segregated settings, BPS should do the following:

A new name and a new approach for the McKinley Schools
• Change the name of the McKinley Schools to the Melvin H. King Schools.

There is already a beautiful mural created by students and staff to honor King for his work in establishing the school and defending the neighborhood from gentrification. His name should be on this school as it launches a community-focused vision reflective of Mel King’s life work.

Employ and empower parents, caretakers, students, and community members who reflect the student demographics to identify highly qualified leadership with a proven track record of constructing an inclusionary school setting where students receive high-quality therapeutic and academic support necessary to create bridges to home schools. Give the new leadership the discretionary authority to achieve excellent results on behalf of Black and Latinx students who have been left behind by the racist McKinley Schools policies.

Change BPS special education

More broadly, in the entire district, support and empower the Equity, Strategy and Opportunity Gaps team to do the work of dismantling racist structures and reconstructing policies, procedures, and practices using culturally and linguistically sustaining practices that lead to eliminating racially unjust disciplinary practices and disproportionality in special education.

Design and apply specific protocols to ensure the practice of segregation of Black boys ends and to ensure that when special education is needed, it is the right service. The BPS special education department is overwhelmingly white. The district must employ a cadre of highly qualified Black educators to address the challenge of overrepresentation of Black students in special education.

Provide all students high-quality early screening prior to kindergarten, and for students predicted to struggle, deliver rapid, early intervening, appropriate tiered literacy/reading interventions with data-driven progress in the general education classroom.

Employ a cadre of highly qualified reading/literacy specialists to make data-driven instructional decisions and provide evidence-based appropriately tiered interventions rooted in appropriately paced supports that result in improved performance for students who require these targeted interventions.

Begin planning developmentally appropriate college and career readiness as soon as students enter school by ensuring they are provided high-quality content instruction and positive behavioral supports and interventions that are data driven, provided by highly qualified staff who are regularly engaged in evidence-based professional learning, and facilitate learning with alignment to standards-based content instruction.

Mel King had a wonderful vision, but it has been derailed. For the sake of hundreds of children, most especially Black boys, who are entitled to a high-quality education that will place them on the track to pursue their dreams and fulfill their life goals, we must get the McKinley Schools back on track.

Edith Bazile is a former BPS special educator and administrator and former President of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM).

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